A Kurd, Heydar Ghorbani, was hanged in Iran this weekend, and a Kurdish woman, Kazhal Nasri, was forcibly disappeared. Because of the overall brutality of the Iranian regime, the Kurdish identity of victims is often mentioned just as an geographical fact (‘in Kurdistan Province’) or can only be discerned through the ‘crime’ he or she committed (‘active for the Kurdistan Democratic Party Iran’). Often, no reference to the ethnic identity of victims is made at all. This needs to change. That the regime in Tehran is brutal to all should not overshadow the fact that the country’s Kurdish population is one of the groups suffering the most.
The footage of desperate family members of Heydar Ghorbani, crying over their son and brother, was heartbreaking. It is, as always with oppressed communities, not the first tragedy in the family: Heydar’s father was murdered by the regime in 1981.
The Kurds had supported the revolution, but by the early 1980s, already it was clear that their support gained them absolutely nothing and that the new rulers would not grant them any freedom. Heydar Ghorbani was active for the Kurdistan Democratic Party Iran, which has fractured ever since but remains present in the mountains in Kurdistan in Iraq and still has support among the population in Rojhilat (Kurdistan in Iran).
Kazhal Nasri is a 26-year old social and environmental activist. She was already summoned by the Iranian secret service this spring, and interrogated for several hours. On 12 December, they entered her house without a search warrant, searched it and arrested her. Ever since, nothing was heard of her and her current whereabouts remain unknown.
Individual cases make it to the news, but the wider context is often omitted. This is also true when there is news about the ‘kolbars,’ the Kurdish border traders who smuggle goods across the border with Turkey. They are shot at by both Turkish and Iranian border guards and often don’t survive.
The wider context is not only that their regions are economically deprived, but also that their lands are divided by borders in the first place – trading with literally their next of kin is rendered a crime because of borders that don’t mean anything to the community.
The nationwide teachers protests last week have a Kurdish angle as well, I discovered when I was researching it for my newsletter www.frederikegeerdink.com/expert-kurdistan: there have been teachers protests for years, and between 2014 and 2019, several teachers were arrested and prosecuted, four of them were sentenced to death and three (of Kurdish and Arab ethnicity) were executed.
The protests are not just about salaries: the protesters also demand the release of imprisoned union leaders and an end to ethnic and religious discrimination within the education system. This is, of course, where Kurds and Arabs come in: they are minorities and are most desperately in need of education that is suited for their children and students, but also the most likely to pay the highest price for protesting because of their marginalized position.
Balochs and Kurds
Kurds and Arabs are in a different position in Iran though. Kurds are more comparable to Baloch citizens, in the sense that they are an ethnic minority but also a religious one: Balochs and Kurds are (mostly) Sunni Muslims, while the Iranian regime is of course Shia. The Arabs are a little closer to power: most Arabs in Iran are Shia. Mind you: it is not my intention to create some sort of hierarchy in suffering, but merely to explain the relations the state has with different ethnic and religious groups in society. And vice versa, the relations these minority groups have with the state: both ethnically and religiously, Kurds and Balochs have the least proximity to power.
The less you are like the regime, the more you will be distrusted by it. This deep distrust has horrific repercussions. Not only standing up for your cultural and religious rights will get you in potentially lethal trouble, also if you go against the law non-politically – like when you steal, murder, rape – you are bound to get harsher punishment when you are a Kurd. Human rights organisations have extensively documented this over the past couple of decades.
New Lines Magazine has an insightful story this week about Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, and how his rise to power in June this year mirrors the story of the state itself. It starts with a horrendous scene in which a pregnant woman is tortured in the early 1980s, and with one young man in the corner of the room coldly looking on – that man was the current president.
His absolute loyalty to the Islamic revolution is bad news for every Iranian with freedom aspirations. The history of the regime and of this man tells you that especially the Kurds are in for an even rougher ride in the years to come.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.